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Updating the big picture 2: What is happening with interdisciplinarity in VET research?

May 10th, 2008 by Pekka Kamarainen

I have started a series of postings to update the big picture of European VET research. My first posting outlined a set of questions (for the subsequent blog entries). In the previous posting I discussed changing views on the “European dimension”. I also raised the question of “European dimension after the Lisbon follow-up”. But, before continuing on that the other questions are pending. This posting is about interdisciplinarity in European VET research.

Different aspects on interdisciplinarity in European VET research

From the early years of European VET-related research cooperation on there has been a common understanding that there are no strong institutional infrastructures for VET-related research. Instead, in many countries VET-related research has been a sub-activity that has been promoted by interested researchers who may represent different research disciplines. In some countries VET research has been linked to special research institutes with an interdisciplinary profile and with an orientation to closely related research areas (e.g. research on VET, work and technology, transition to labour market and learning in organisational contexts. Only in few countries (notably in Germany) there are institutional frameworks that establish VET research (Berufspädagogik, Wirtschaftspädagogik, Berufs- und Wirtschaftspädagogik) as academic disciplines due to the academisation of vocational teacher education.

Therefore, it has been one of the preconditions for European research cooperation in VET to accept the diversity of academic backgrounds and methodological orientations. Thus, at the least, everyone has agreed that the field of VET has to be considered as a multi-disciplinary area of research. However, in the course of time the VET-oriented researches have found it necessary to broaden their range of expertise in VET-related research (beyond their original academic specialisation) and to commit themselves more closely to dialogue between VET policies and practitioners. This brought into picture a stronger concept of interdisciplinarity that characterises the community development in European VET research.

In addition to the above mentioned aspects it is worthwhile to note different interests of knowledge and respective methodological orientations within VET research:

a) Academic research approaches that explain specific phenomena related to VET with reference to concepts and theoretical constructs of established research disciplines (“Observatories on VET”);

b) Cultural research approaches that explore different meaning structures and specific patterns related to VET to make them transparent vis-à-vis the underlying cultural conventions (“Anthropologies on VET”);

c) Co-developmental research approaches that promote knowledge development related to expertise on teaching and training in the field of VET (“Pedagogics of VET”).

Interdisciplinarity, knowledge enrichment and European research cooperation

In the light of the above, it is essential to note how the European cooperation programmes have promoted capacity-building, knowledge enrichment and dialogue across conceptual and cultural barriers.

The period 1995-2000 (The early Leonardo, TSER and the era of complementarity)

It is worthwhile to note that during the preparation of the action programme Leonardo da Vinci there were efforts to create a research strand (latterly named as ‘surveys and analyses’). Parallel to this, the 4th Framework Programme of Research of the EU included a Targeted Socio-Economic Research Programme (TSER). Both programmes were expected to develop complemetary relations with each other. Thus, the Leonardo strand S&A could be used for pioneering project designs whereas the projects and networks for TSER aimed at more comprehensive knowledge development. At best, these funding opportunities were at place when European VET researchers were looking for funding that would provide support for community-based and thematic knowledge development.

The period after 2000: The 6th Framework programme – polarisation and mainstreaming

The change from the 4th to the 5th Framework programme was not perceived as very dramatic although the TSER programme was no longer continued. Yet, the presence of VET-related research priorities und the heading “Developing Human Potential” was clear. Thus, there was some continuity between research work started under the Leonardo or TSER funding and successor activities under the 5th Framework programme. However, the transition into the 6th Framework programme (soon after the Lisbon Summit) had clear marks of a cultural change. In this context research was to be funded via networks of excellence or via integrated projects that were to be based on sufficient critical mass. For the relatively small VET research community either the quantity of participating institutions or the coherence of project designs (with a large number of partners) turned out be critical factors. Due to the lack of successful projects the role of VET-lated research in the future research priorities became even more peripheral.

Parallel to this the role of (independent) research in the European action programme started become more marginal and the polarisation between (policy-oriented) research and (policy-supporting) consultancy started to become more manisfest. At the same time the evaluation boom in the universities started to raise questions on the status of interdisciplinary research institutes and their publication forums. This led gradually to polarisation between merged institutes (that were closer to faculties, academic teaching and mainstream disciplines) and external institutes (that were privatised and maintained informal relations with the universities.

What has happened to joint knowledge development: research in work-related learning

In this blog posting it is not possible to give an overview on the institutional repositioning of European VET researchers and related conceptual and methodological consequences. However, it possible to mention an exemplary case that illustrates these developments. In the years 1998-2002 several European and national projects had been engaged in studying work-related learning. Some of the projects had educationalist starting points and examined the educational value of workplace learning, some were focusing on learning in organisational contexts (with an emphasis on ‘work process knowledge’) and a third set of projects was focusing on reshaping occupational profiles and related learnng arrangements. In the years 2001-2002 there was some support for cross-project dialogue across these approaches. However, at the end of this interim period all parties were pursuing their separate agendas: the seemingly similar research topics and overlapping contexts of research were not enough to stimulate boundary-crossing dialogue. At the same time the researchers and their institutes were facing different challenges to stregthen their research profiles – at the expense of interdisciplinary dialogue and European knowledge enrichment.

How to make interdisciplinary research and European knowledge development attractive?

As I have indicated, the fascination of interdisciplinary research has been in the learning potentials and in the opportunities for boundary-crossing cooperation (both at the national level and in European contexts). To what extent this has promoted knowledge development, is dependent on the working contexts and on the maturity of research. In this respect the critical change in European research funding narrowed down the possibilities to harvest the results of an active explorative period. Therefore, the subsequent cooperation projects have not contributed strongly to the big picture of growth of knowledge in European VET research.

This has gradually led to retreat from European cooperation arenas and to individual research work. Therefore, parallel to the previously posed question on the future nature of “European dimension” of VET research, there is a need to ask, what is the futue role of ‘interdisciplinarity’ in VET research. And, here again, I do have some thoughts on this. However, it would not be appropriate to continue the discussion at this abstract level. As I have indicated, there are other pending issues that are related to this question. In particular, the relations between VET research and innovations in VET is of crucial importance.

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